Meet Thundercat, the Jazz-Fusion Genius Behind Kendrick Lamar's 'Butterfly'

How Erykah Badu's Billy Preston ended up at the center of 2015's most talked-about album

Funk-soul-jazz bass virtuoso Thundercat is responsible for the celestial architecture beneath Kendrick Lamar's new LP. Credit: B+

They all know Thundercat at the ramen spot. He's not the kind of person you forget. I first saw him about seven years ago playing bass for Erykah Badu, wearing intergalactic shoulder pads and an eagle-feathered Cheyenne Indian war bonnet. You couldn't tell if he was 23 or 230, the son of Bootsy Collins or Sitting Bull, a legendary session player or an Afro-Futurist anime hero.

The answers still aren't entirely clear, but this much is crystalline: Thundercat is Stephen Bruner, a bassist with perfect pitch who has released two brilliant albums on Flying Lotus' Brainfeeder imprint. Splitting the difference between Bowser's Castle overtures and George Duke, they encompass jazz, funk, soul and the occasional love groove to ecstasy or a pet cat. And sometime in the last 18 months, Kendrick Lamar recruited the South Central native to supply the celestial ecclesiastical architecture undergirding the year's most talked about album, To Pimp a Butterfly.

"A part of me almost didn't feel comfortable talking to anybody," Bruner says, shortly after sitting down at his go-to noodle spot, not far from his Koreatown home. He's wearing a phalanx of turquoise rings and necklaces and a T-shirt of his Saturday-morning-cartoon namesake underneath an open woolen cardigan. "I wanted Kendrick to get a chance to speak first — having spent so much time working with him, it's clear that everything he does is on purpose," says the consummate session man. "I was kind of taking his cue." 

Until recently, Thundercat, 30, was a half-secret with a staggering résumé. Before he was old enough to vote, he joined his brother, the similarly prodigious drummer Ronald Bruner Jr., in Suicidal Tendencies. Their father drummed for Diana Ross and the Temptations, raising the budding jazz prodigies across South Central, Compton and Watts. When the riots hit, Thundercat remembers going with his dad atop their apartment and watching a crowd torch a nearby gas station.

During the middle of the last decade, Thundercat linked up with Shafiq Husayn of Sa-Ra and became a permanent fixture at the group's Silver Lake studio that briefly served as the Los Alamos of the L.A. underground music scene. Everyone from Ty Dolla $ign, Badu and Bilal passed through the sprawling nerve center. Thundercat fit right in, playing video games, cracking jokes and sculpting bass lines in endless jams. Badu eventually plucked him for her live band and New Amerykah studio sessions.

"I was like Billy Preston in the Rolling Stones. 'Who's that black guy with the Afro?'" Thundercat says, laughing. "I was like a little mouse in the house. My bass set up somewhere, curled in the corner playing Xbox or Playstation."

The full scope of Thundercat's talent only became apparent after meeting Flying Lotus. He's compared their connection to Jay and Silent Bob — an inseparable duo telepathically bonded over a love of jazz-fusion, anime and South Korean cult films. The bassist's influence and instrumentation are all over Lotus' last three records — last year's You're Dead was Rolling Stone's dance album of 2014. It was Lotus who convinced Thundercat to sing, make solo records and eventually introduced him to Lamar.

Shortly after good kid, m.A.A.d. city's buzz died down, Lamar's team called Thundercat to play bass on a track that never made the finished album. "It was part of the process. He knew my history a little bit, but was also figuring it out how it applied," Thundercat says.

He began collaborating in earnest with TDE in-house producer, Sounwave. They'd bring Lamar sketches in passing and eventually it snowballed to where his Stanley Clarke-scoring-Naruto basslines became an integral component of the album. They're unmistakable, gurgling, trampoline somersaulting licks that elevate the album's heavy themes. Alpha Centauri by way of South Central.

Beyond calculable measures, Thundercat shaped the sound of To Pimp a Butterfly. He'd pull up old records in the studio, furnishing an advanced-level jazz seminar for Lamar: Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock, Mary Lou Williams and Miles Davis.

"We went down some lines, a little bit of lineage. I tried to inspire him where he inspired me," Thundercat says between sips of Sprite.

"I played him Miles Davis' 'Little Church' and he was like, 'What the fuck is this?' I was like, 'This is Miles Davis, man — and one of his baddest records.' He was always like, 'I gotta come to your house and take this stuff off your hands.'"

The sonic direction tilted again after Lamar overheard Thundercat bump a track from the never-released 2006 Sa-Ra album, Black Fuzz. Immediately inspired, Lamar made the bassist bring in Sa-Ra's Taz Arnold, who eventually produced "u," "For Sale (Interlude)" and "Momma." 

When Thundercat talks about Lamar, you sense a genuine awe. "I've never been around a person like that. He was so freed up to the point that he didn't care. It would sound so weird, but he would risk it," he says. "I've spent so much time around cats that try so hard to be this one thing. With him it was effortless and fast… always in the moment and on the seat of his pants."

Thundercat mentions the session for "Mortal Man," where Lamar walked in shortly after he and Sounwave had just finished the instrumental.

"We played it for him and he just stood there listening for a second. . .playing with his hair," Thundercat continues. "Then he goes, 'It sounds like someone did this to you,' and described everything what had just happened to me, without knowing anything about it. I just sat there quietly like, 'This motherfucker is on point.'

Thundercat doesn't speak with the academic seriousness you might expect from a serious modern jazz player. Even though he's a music encyclopedia, he would clearly prefer to talk about comedy or anime. He recently played L.A.'s Wiltern with Hannibal Buress and is ready to tick off his favorite all-time comics without much prodding: Richard Pryor, Paul Mooney, the Wayans Brothers, Louis C.K., Zack Galifianakis, Dave Chappelle, Mel Brooks. That's the short list. Thundercat's explicit extra-musical goal was to get Lamar to laugh at least once during the sessions — he proudly says he managed it by the time they got to mastering.

While few expected Thundercat to be at the creative epicenter of the Number One album in the country, his peers have long raved about his preternatural talent and vision.

"He'll play you a piece of a song and you'll go, 'OK,' and then he'll suddenly add the melody in and it becomes this brilliant thing," says his long-time friend and collaborator, the saxophonist Kamasi Washington, who plays tenor on "u." "It's like seeing a great painter with a canvas that looks like a lot of nothing, and then one little stroke goes and you're like, 'Wow you saw that the whole time?" He hears things in songs that other people don't hear."His Brainfeeder labelmate, DJ-producer the Gaslamp Killer, describes the bassist as one of the most "clear, focused, driven, and intelligent personalities you'll ever meet. He can play the most intricate jazz, funk and soul and then shred with some 180 BPM punk Suicidal Tendencies riffs."

The eccentricity disguises the virtuoso. Beyond raw technical ability and goofy jokes, there's an acute sensitivity and awareness. When he speaks about his prematurely departed best friend, pianist Austin Peralta, a palpable sorrow haunts the conversation. In the next breath, he'll riff on references appropriated from Blazing Saddles. He talks about coming home at 8 a.m. after they finally finished mastering TPAB, and breaking down in tears.

He's working on a new album with Flying Lotus, but tonight he plans to take a night off. He's going to drink whiskey and watch a marathon of Park Chan-Wook films at home. Two to-go orders of ramen are waiting for him. Maybe he should take a vacation? He laughs and shakes his head. Now isn't the time.

"Money comes and goes," Thundercat says. "But when you look back on your career, you have be able to answer to yourself: Did I make the most of my time on earth? From here, I'm just planning on following my heart and trying to find the God in things."